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  • Quinn Mason

My favorite recordings of 'Rite of Spring' (Updated)

Updated: May 28, 2020

It's no secret. Everyone who knows me personally knows how much I obsess over this work. I literally study the score everyday and find something I missed the previous hundred times I've looked at it. It's one of the pieces of music that one can listen to a million times and it'll never get old. It's definitely my favorite orchestral work of all time.

It's not only my favorite work of all time, but it's extremely important to music history. The great Leonard Bernstein is quoted as once saying, "That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...", and "...it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name."


The legendary opening bassoon solo

So why do I love it so much?

I have a personal connection with this piece, because it was among one of the first large orchestral works from the 20th century that I studied when I was getting started with composition. In my first private composition lesson, which was way back in 2010, my first assignment was to listen to Rite and note my observations about the music. Armed with the score and Pierre's Monteux's 1951 recording, I dove in. My first impressions of the score were not that flattering; even though I was 13 years old and had some exposure to contemporary music already, I didn't immediately catch onto the unique style. I also remember getting lost in the immensely complex score several times, especially in the Sacrificial Dance.


As of now (May 2020), I've seen the Rite of Spring performed live three times (2011, 2016 and 2020), the first two times by my local Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the third time by Orchestra Seattle and friend and mentor Will White. I've also been to two rehearsals of the DSO (2011 and 2017) with the same orchestra and conductor (Jaap van Zweden) and recently gotten the chance to act as assistant conductor for this piece (with Orchestra Seattle). Seeing it actually being performed led to a greater appreciation of this masterwork. The rehearsals gave me new insight into how a complicated piece was prepared by a top flight orchestra. In the second rehearsal I attended in 2017, the (now former) principal percussionist of the DSO was nice enough to let me sit among the percussion as they played. It was an experience my ears will never forget.

An image from a Dallas Symphony rehearsal of Rite of Spring. This was the last time those timpani were seen alive.

Some context to the music (or 'A not-so-complete' history of the Rite of Spring)

The thing that always strikes me about this piece is how well it's held up over the hundred years since it was composed. The fact is that this piece is over 100 years old is still very surprising to think about. Every time one listens to it, it sounds as fresh as if it were composed a week ago. So much about this piece is ahead of its time that's almost insane to think that one man wrote all of this in the span of a year.


It was third of a string of successful and innovative ballets created for the company Ballets Russes, after L'oiseau De Feu (The Firebird) (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) was composed in 1911-1912 and was based on a fleeting vision Stravinsky had of a young maiden dancing herself to death. This occurred as he was finishing Firebird in 1910.


Something that all of three of these ballets have in common is that they are based on Russian legends and folklore. This was probably the idea of the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, who also founded the company and commissioned the ballets (from Ravel, Debussy and Satie among others). Diaghilev entrusted the creation of the scenario of the Rite of Spring to Stravinsky and his friend Nicholas Roerich, who also did the costumes and stage design. Diaghilev also told Stravinsky to use as large of an orchestra as he wanted, as the Ballets Russes was forward looking and had a lot of funding at their disposal at the time.


The ballet was premiered on May 29, 1913, with the orchestra of the Ballets Russes (consisting of players hired out from the Paris Opera and freelancers) conducted by Pierre Monteux. According to Stravinsky, the orchestra had 52 rehearsals. This was and still is a rare luxury and almost never happens today.


This is one of the most infamous events in classical music due to a riot breaking out early in the performance of the Rite and escalating to the point of the police being called in. It's almost urban legend that the music itself was so different and new that it was for sure the culprit. However, it was the jarring and angular choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and strange set design by Roerich that provoked strong responses from the audience. It's also worth noting that the Rite of Spring was the on the second half of the program that night. On the first half was music by Chopin, Weber and Borodin, all with traditional ballet dance and costumes.


The Rite is scored for an immense orchestra of quintuple winds, 8 horns (with the 7th and 8th horns doubling Wagner tubas), 5 trumpets (full range from piccolo to bass), 3 trombones, 2 tubas and a heavy battery of 2 timpanists, bass drum, tam-tam, guiro, triangle, tambourine, cymbals and crotales.

The orchestration is innovative and contains new and novel compositional devices no other composer was using at the time, although the idea of 2 timpanists was pioneered in Hector Berlioz's 1830 Symphonie Fantastique. One also sees the beginning of the use of percussion instruments as important soloists; the bass drum solo from 'Dance of the Earth' and the timpani part from 'Danse Sacrale' appear on orchestral audition lists today.


Looking at his use of the orchestra in slow quiet sections, Stravinsky tends to use the winds in chamber context with individual instruments interacting with each other:

An example of chamber scoring in the Rite of Spring

Also, take the counterpoint, which is ingenious. At any given time in the score there are multiple rhythms, keys (bitonality) even tempi happening at the same time. The climax of the first part (procession of the sage) is the perfect example of this and also features the 100 person plus strong orchestra in its full power:

From 'procession of the sage', in which Stravinsky superimposes more than 10 different rhythms on top of each other

It's the revolutionary use of rhythm and orchestration that makes this score unique. It's almost strange to remember that this music was written to be danced to, and it's so rhythmically complex that it can be intimidating at first glance.

However, the beats are so carefully placed that one can literally feel the piece as they are listening to it. It does take a few listens to latch onto the rhythmic cells, however.

first page of the Danse Sacrale. Stravinsky himself said that this movement was the hardest to notate

The growing interest in recordings

Over time, I've become interested in the different interpretations of this piece. The recording history of the complete work spans 1929 (16 years after the premiere) to late last year and it continues to get numerous live performances and radio broadcasts, as it's now a part of the standard orchestral repertoire. It's very fascinating to listen to these recordings in chronological order, as one can notice several prominent things:

  • The steady increase in recording quality (from mono to stereo).

  • The raising of orchestral standards. You can hear the tightening of orchestra playing increase as the decades go by.

  • How orchestral musicians dealt with and felt complex rhythms in the early-mid 20th century versus today.

  • Lost rare styles of playing from certain recordings (take for example, Pierre Monteux's 1929 recording with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, an exclusively french orchestra. The first thing one will notice is the french bassoon, which has a sonority on par with a saxophone in addition to french oboes and thinner brass. Also note the not very heavy strings. This is most likely how the orchestra on opening night sounded.

  • The rise of youth orchestras playing this piece, beginning in the 1970s. It's interesting to think that the Rite, which was once considered unplayable by the best orchestras in the early 20th century, can now be performed almost flawlessly by kids and children

  • Changes in interpretation by one conductor. The Rite has been recorded multiple times by conductors like Monteux (1929, 1945, 1951, 1956), Stravinsky himself (1929, 1940, 1960), Karajan (1964, 1977), Dorati (1953, 1959, 1981), Bernstein (1958, 1972, 1982) Rattle (1977, 1987, 2012), Ozawa (1968, 1979), and Boulez (1963, 1969, 1991) among others. In these recordings, the changes in interpretation can range from exciting to boring, or vice versa. As conductor matures, so does their perception of a piece of music and one can hear that first hand in multiple recordings made over several years.

  • The sounds of the different orchestras, by nationality. Every orchestra is unique and has different playing styles. American orchestras usually sound more refined and are focused on putting the notes in the right place, while Russian orchestras play with extremely loud volume (usually from the brass) and with abandon. French orchestras are silky smooth in this piece (which sometimes doesn't fit, but usually does since the Rite was originally premiered by a French orchestra) and German orchestras have the heaviest sounding strings and percussion.

I've compared and contrasted an element of Rite in the past, in two Youtube videos which looks at how the famous 11 beats have been played and recorded over a long period of time.

In my journey to explore the recording history of the Rite, I've accumulated over 600 recordings from 1927 to the present. Some of them come from CDs, some from internet radio broadcasts, and some of the rare recordings were provided to me by dear friends. Some of them are out of print or extremely rare, and I had to really do intense research to find them. For example, I've sought out and digitally transferred several rare vinyl recordings.


I'd like to look at some of my personal favorites, by decade. I want to note that I'll be looking at orchestral recordings in specific. I say this because almost everything has been done with the Rite of Spring these days (including a jazz version and a well regarded midi recording). There is also the very popular original version for two pianos and arrangement for band (some of them surprisingly good and some of them terrible).


1920's - 1940's

I don't have an all time favorite recording from this time period, but it's fascinating to hear how orchestras struggled to play this work cleanly, which is not surprising considering the piece was not yet 20 years old and still looked at as 'cutting edge' at the time. Looking at Stravinsky's own recording from 1929 with the Walther Straram Concerts Orchestra and comparing that to his 1940 remake with the New York Philharmonic, one can see how quickly orchestras got used to rhythmic complexities of the score. Stravinsky wasn't really the best conductor of his own music, but his performances come out as authentic and powerful. Pierre Monteux's 1929 recording is of historic interest mostly because of Monteux being the one who premiered the ballet and this being the first full recording of the work. With the french orchestra, it's perhaps the closest we can get to how the orchestra sounded on that infamous opening night. The first american recording was made in 1930 by the trailblazing Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had previously attempted to record it in 1927 (they only recorded half of the first part). Also during this period, Pierre Monteux recorded it with the San Francisco Symphony in 1945 and Eduard van Beinum recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1946.

There also exists a recording from 1928 of rehearsals for the west coast premiere of this work, with Eugene Goossens conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It's extremely fascinating to try to hear the orchestra figure out the unfamiliar rhythms, most of the time failing. (Goossens himself would later record it in the studio in 1958 with the London Symphony Orchestra).


1950's

Starting in the 1950's, several powerhouse recordings of Rite were released, giving a new generation new insight into a piece that was barely 30 years old. This same generation would've also been familiar with the Rite anyways, due to the popularity of the dinosaur sequence from 1940's Fantasia. Gradually, more and more conductors began to try their hands at tackling this work both in the concert hall and in the studio. Igor Markevitch, one of the all time foremost interpreters of this work (and of Stravinsky in general), first recorded it in 1951 in mono sound with the Philharmonia Orchestra and later re-recorded it in 1959 in stereo with the same orchestra. The 1959 recording is well regarded because of the virtuoso playing of the orchestra and the power of the interpretation.

The most famous recording from the 50's would be Leonard Bernstein's January 1958 account with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein had just assumed the music directorship of the philharmonic at the time and made this stereo recording in the studio. He had previously performed it with the philharmonic on tour in 1951 and possibly first conducted it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the late 1940's.

With Bernstein's 1958 account, it was a new way of looking at the Rite. The brutality is present and the full power of the philharmonic at the time is unleashed. One could dive right into recording not knowing the story and catch on right away. Some 60 years after it was recorded, it continues to hold up beautifully. Legend has it that Stravinsky himself was impressed by this recording, and he was notoriously critical about recordings of his pieces, later heavily criticising the 1964 recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

From the same time period, Ferenc Fricsay's 1954 document with the RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Ernest Ansermet's (who conducted the 1920 revival at the Ballets Russes) 1957 recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande may not have the strongest orchestral playing but contain strong interpretational ideas and are very fascinating to listen to.

Also from 1959 is a recording from René Leibowitz and the New Symphony Orchestra of London under the recording name, 'London Festival Orchestra'. René Leibowitz was a teacher of Pierre Boulez, so it's worth comparing to Boulez's recordings as they're very similar is style and scope.


1960's

By this point, recording quality had undergone a significant change, and stereo was becoming popular. In 1960, Stravinsky's final recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra was released incorporating the not very popular 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance. Stravinsky's skills as a conductor had improved immensely and he was able to navigate around his own score with more ease and style. The recording can be considered definitive.

The immensely underrated 1962 recording with Otmar Suitner conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden has to be one of my favorite recordings of all time. Another powerhouse recording, the playing throughout is extremely tight and the Danse Sacrale contains some of the best timpani playing ever recorded. When one thinks of the 1960's and the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky's 1960 recording and Pierre Boulez's popular 1969 account with the Cleveland Orchestra (during its peak days) springs to mind for some people. Out of all of Boulez's recordings, I like this version the best. Legend has it that this recording was done in one take. Listening to it, it's almost miraculous that the score was being played with precision never before heard. The Danse Sacrale in particular is shocking and performed with all the little things in the score brought out perfectly.

The honor of most brutal (in a good way) recording of the 60's, however, belongs to Seiji Ozawa, who laid it down in July 1968 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I read somewhere that Ozawa was qu